Remembering Pakistani artist Zubeida Agha: that colourful lust for life

Saira Ansari, writer, researcher and great niece of the painter shares her memories. This account, part of our Remembering the Artist series, is based on their interview

I bolted into the living room of our family home in Islamabad donning loud, shiny plastic sunglasses that rival those of Elton John. I introduced myself as the star performer to my audience: the strong, opinionated and warm women of my maternal family. My show began: I mimicked Indian actor and producer Mithun Chakraborty’s crazy dance moves as I sang his 1982 anthem, I Am A Disco Dancer.

As a child, I thoroughly enjoyed putting on performances – musical, theatrical or both – and Apa Zubeida, as we called her, would encourage me. “Dance kar ke dekhao” (show me your dance), she would say, in Urdu, with a graceful wave of her hand and a sweet smile. So elegant, there was such a wit about her.

It is her demeanour that I remember most – she was warm but shut off at the same time and perhaps that is what made her slightly intimidating to me. I could feel her presence in a room and though her body was old, I almost feel like she never aged. I grew up with her paintings hung across all our family homes, knew her to be loving with family members, and had a kind of hero-worship relationship with her.

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I guess that’s what really inspired me – a curiosity, passion and lust for life – here was a woman who wanted to paint her dreams and didn’t let anyone stop her
Saira Ansari on Zubeida Agha

She dressed her wiry frame in the most delicate of saris and tied her hair into a thick bun. The twinkle in her eyes glowed against the rouge of her thin lips. I was told that I once offended her when I said that old women who wear blood-red lipstick are witches. I have no memory of saying this, but she took it personally as a 70-year-old woman who still wore red lipstick.

Apa Zubeida was my maternal grandmother’s sister, and was very close to my mother, who like all her cousins, strangely enough, called her apa, Urdu for sister. The name stuck and she became Apa Zubeida to me, too. I didn’t know she was Zubeida Agha, one of Pakistan’s foremost painters and gallerists.

At the National College of Arts Lahore (NCA), I became opinionated, political and headstrong – some traits that my mother recalled in Apa Zubeida.

During my master’s at the college in 2010, a professor, Atteqa Ali, mentioned her and I told her that she is my relative. Mouth agape, she said, "This is a legacy you must preserve."

Something clicked and after completing a minor research paper on her, I delved into Apa Zubeida's practice more and was awarded a research grant by the Lahore Biennale Foundation in 2015. Family members allowed me access into her home and studio, and as I sifted through her handwritten notes, photographs and artworks, I discovered an entirely new person, someone who wasn’t a relative, but an icon.

I was and still am in utter awe. She came alive for me, and I felt like I literally brought someone who had been gone for so long, back into my life. I still feel like I have been obsessed with her for years.

Apa Zubeida hailed from a privileged and cultured family and though she read Philosophy and Political Science at Lahore’s women-only Kinnaird College, she had a dream about art. In 1944, her brother Agha Abdul Hamid, who was a prominent bureaucrat and art critic and with whom she navigated the cultural infrastructure of Pakistan, introduced her to celebrated Indian painter, sculptor and art teacher BC Sanyal, under whom Apa Zubeida trained.

In 1946, Agha Abdul Hamid introduced her to Mario Perlingieri, an Italian prisoner of war in India, who was a student of Picasso and who encouraged Apa Zubeida to break from traditional modes of learning and paint her ideas – essentially what we call conceptual art. She veered towards abstraction, intensified colour and cemented her position as a colourist painter.

As part of a group exhibition at the Punjab Fine Arts Society in Lahore in 1946, she debuted her work and won awards. Three years later, Apa Zubeida staged her first solo show in Karachi to critical acclaim. Some were awed by her work, others shocked – this, at a post-Partition juncture when the notion of identity was being pondered: critics wondered how she defined herself with these colours and shapes.

By this time, Apa Zubeida realised she has the freedom to express however she wanted to. I guess that’s what really inspired me – a curiosity, passion, and lust for life. It was not about marking territory; it was a desire to explore. Here was a woman who wanted to paint her dreams and didn’t let anyone stop her.

In 1950, she won a scholarship to study painting at Central Saint Martins in London, and within a year, decided to continue at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Solo exhibitions in the British and French capitals followed, with the press writing about this doe-eyed Muslim girl, always in beautiful white saris and donning a thin head covering. She returned to Karachi and staged show after show as her paintings began to brim with light, colour and energy.

By this time, artist communities were being built and while Apa Zubeida was part of fine arts societies, she wasn't part of the milieu of some men-only social groups comprising painters, poets, writers, and revolutionaries. Also, well-known artists got into the tradition of teaching. She didn’t and that is perhaps why she was erased from history. In 1961, she became the director of the Contemporary Art Gallery in Rawalpindi and during her tenure until 1977, staged superb exhibitions and even exported shows to Italy and elsewhere.

After her retirement, she settled in Islamabad and became a recluse, only showing her work in her home in a very limited manner. My relatives continue to fulfil her desire for privacy, and coupled with a lot of oral history, which makes research on her life and work so complicated.

Apa Zubeida wasn’t a woman artist. The more I dug, the more I saw just how much she (and other women) contributed to cultural modernity. I feel that I owe her a really good book and exhibition. I know she didn’t like attention but it’s the least we can do for what she did for the country. These kinds of things are left in our responsibility, and I hope that when I pay her that homage, she gives me that same graceful wave of her hand and a sweet smile from up above.

Remembering the Artist is our series that features artists from the region

Updated: October 31st 2021, 5:17 AM